The Atelier series is often considered whimsical, wholesome, and charming. Rarely do the games have villains, and the world usually doesn’t need saving. There’s no grand gathering of heroes most of the time, and evil empires are little more than a tale in a tome worn away by time. Yet, what happens when a series so well known for small scale slice-of-life hijinks tries to tackle a grand apocalyptic plot? We get the Dusk series: a trilogy of games focused on a world in decline.
We start the Dusk series with Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk. As the game begins, we’re immediately met with melancholy that engulfs the world. Ruins dot the lands and reach hopelessly towards a cloudy sky, only to settle as forgotten fragments of their former glory. The colors of the world are muted, giving the land a dreary, murky tone as fog drifts along the winds. Yet among the drab browns and quiet greens are vibrant flowers of pink and yellow, standing as tall as they can as a symbol of life in a dying world.
Thus, the story begins with protagonist Ayesha Altugle. Contrary to most Atelier protagonists, Ayesha is not an alchemist. She’s a lone apothecary living in the outskirts of a dying land, with a workshop not too far from the ruins where her younger sister was spirited away. She has no aspirations to become a great alchemist, nor is she under threat of her workshop getting shut down. Instead, she lives a quiet life with her cow Pana and simply has a knack for alchemy. While she comes across as a bit of an airhead, she has a pure heart and wants nothing more than to find her sister. A fateful encounter with a rogue alchemist soon sets her on the path of alchemy and adventure with the hope of rescuing her sister.
The inhabitants of this world refer to the spreading decay and decline of their land as the Dusk. The aforementioned rogue alchemist is searching for clues about the previous civilization and what its connection to the Dusk may be. Droughts are commonplace, and there are more collapsed ruins than forests these days. Things only seem to be getting worse as the sun sets lower and lower in the horizon. Yet Atelier Ayesha‘s story isn’t as depressing as it seems. Ayesha herself is a joyous person who opts to see the good in everyone and everything, and throughout the game, she surrounds herself with like-minded people.
From the panning shots of the intro, the game presents its visual style as intentionally murky. The land is dying, after all. There is a muted tone to every backdrop, every environment from Ayesha’s workshop to the grand city of Vierzeberg. As a result, each character stand out just as vibrantly as the pink and yellow flowers from the intro. The character designs — and the characters themselves — symbolize the resistance against decay and the urge to try to find happiness wherever possible. Though there is a looming threat encroaching ever closer, that doesn’t stop the characters from enjoying life and forming bonds.
Atelier Ayesha‘s characters stand out in both writing and design. Though some characters feel undercooked (such as Ranun), the core cast shines. On the visual front, the character designs by Hidari (of Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia fame) translate well to 3D. Most surprising, however, is how well the art style has aged. With the jump to modern systems, the game’s visual style looks clean and polished. The DX version doesn’t only offer an increased resolution; it also boasts a solid 60fps framerate. This is a blessing compared to the game’s performance on PS3 and PSVita where it struggled to maintain a solid 25-30fps at best.
The increased resolution and framerate do wonders for exploration, but where Atelier Ayesha truly excels is its battle system. While Atelier Ayesha‘s combat seems basic at first, it unfolds with more components as the game goes on. The battle system feels reminiscent of the previous Arland series, with a three-person party that includes one alchemist and two bodyguards. You can attack with anyone, though the alchemist (or apothecary in Ayesha’s case) can also use items. A simple gauge builds up over the course of the battle and can be used for follow-up attacks as well as defensive covers.
Atelier Ayesha gets a little more strategic with its battle system than previous entries do. You move characters around the field and attack from the flank and back for some extra damage. Character placement can be important when it comes to enemies using area-of-effect attacks to hit multiple characters. However, grouping characters together to get all the effects of an AoE heal or buff is also viable. Learning when and where to place characters around the field can grant a considerable boon in battle. Unfortunately, this mechanic feels a bit underused. I would have liked to see ‘danger zones’ where an attack may strike next, or placeable fields that grant heals and buffs.
Combat in Atelier Ayesha is both flashy and fun. Like in previous games, the alchemist (apothecary!) has access to a dizzying array of items. Creating these items is unquestionably the best part of Atelier games by far, and it’s satisfying gathering materials in a new field to make a fancy new bomb or stat booster. In previous games, the balance between combat prowess and item mastery often tipped towards the latter, leaving alchemists with few options after running out of items. Atelier Ayesha thankfully balances this out better by giving Ayesha herself a few more abilities in combat.
As in all other Atelier games, you craft curious items in the atelier and explore the world for new materials. The map design in Atelier Ayesha is impressive for its small scale. Gathering fields are often only a few screens long, and there are few actual dungeons to explore. Instead, there are grand ruins where Ayesha can gather new materials, fight crumbling automatons, and search for ancient relics. One of my favorite parts of Atelier Ayesha is exploring a desolate ruin and asking, “Why is this here?” before building theories regarding the previous civilization and how it came to an end.
When exploring these quiet ruins and open fields, Ayesha gathers materials to use for alchemy later. Gathering items does pass some time, and the game has a general time limit of three years. Though time passes while out and about, the time limit in Atelier Ayesha is not as daunting or oppressive as it seems. Some items can take multiple days to craft, especially in bulk, so it’s best not to worry, as the game offers ample time to complete your goals. That said, keeping an eye on the calendar is important because of monthly events and holidays.
The Dusk series has a great core cast and a fantastic setting, but the alchemy is where it falls a little behind. Compared to the Arland series, Atelier Ayesha‘s alchemy system is more compelling, but it pales in comparison to the Mysterious trilogy that follows. Synthesis in Atelier Ayesha feels a little too basic at first with the system automating most of what you do. As you gain alchemy levels, you get more and more control over what you’re doing until you’re manually adding materials in a particular order to get specific traits. It’s far from my favorite system in the franchise, but it functions well and rewards experimentation.
Progression in Atelier Ayesha is fairly straightforward initially. Characters earn abilities as they level up, as expected. However, an interesting twist on the system is the Memory Diary. Finding new locations, taking on requests, talking to people, and completing goals in the notebook all give you Memory Points. As the story unfolds, more options become available to spend points on. Many of these rewards improve stats, offer new item recipes, or even increase the number of items received from synthesis. With each memory comes a journal entry from Ayesha, all of which are heartfelt recaps of her thoughts on the events. When paired with the soft music box song playing in the background, these entries create a wholesome atmosphere that stands as a nice reprieve.
As expected, the soundtrack to Atelier Ayesha is a wondrous affair. As with most Atelier games, the battle themes are the standout tracks that add a flair of excitement and high energy to otherwise relaxed games. Daisuke Achiwa and Kazuki Yanagawa’s compositional talents are on full display here. The soundtrack has many melancholic tracks that add a simultaneously warm and cool atmosphere as the party explores desolate ruins, sandy plains, and mountainous terrain littered with wolves. The variety in the battle tracks is also frankly impressive. Tracks like “Sylpheed” and “Undine” feel airy, whimsical, and pretty while “Salamander” has a heavy groove to it that gets the blood pumping. The battle themes never get old, and given the sheer amount of them, it’s always exciting when a new track starts playing as you enter later phases of the game or turn the tides of battle.
From stellar music to heartwarming writing, Atelier Ayesha is a fantastic Atelier game. It’s one of the best in the series and a great place to start for newcomers. The DX version introduces new quality-of-life options such as fast forward in combat, a dash function, message logs, and updated UI elements that make the text easier to read. The updated character portraits in battle are a nice touch, especially when compared to the rather uncanny 3D portraits used in the PS3 and Vita versions. Atelier Ayesha: The Alchemist of Dusk DX is a great update to a great game, and it’s surprising just how nicely it cleans up. It is by far the definitive version and the absolute best way to play the game thanks to all the quality-of-life changes and its availability on modern systems. For people looking to get into the series, the Dusk trilogy is a great place to start. For long-time fans, I’d easily recommend a replay if only to see just how well the game has aged.